Germany bids for more clout amid NATO's Afghan split

( dpa )- Germany's plan to boost its troops in northern Afghanistan is designed to increase its clout within a divided NATO.

It is a risky strategy that may end up alienating German citizens while failing to address US criticisms that it is not willing to do its share of the fighting in Afghanistan's volatile southern provinces.

On Saturday, Berlin made known it would be seeking the go ahead from the German parliament to raise the upper limit for contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, from the current 3,500 to 4,500 personnel.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was also expected to call for the mission's authorization to be extended until the spring of 2010, rather than being rolled over by 12 months, as has been done up to now.

The reason is obvious enough. The government faces a tricky general election in the autumn of 2009, and most Germans 63 per cent of them according to latest opinion polls do not believe their country's military involvement in Afghanistan serves German interests.

As German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it during a high-profile Security Conference in Munich this weekend: "Large sections of the (German) public have an increasingly sceptical attitude towards our missions abroad."

Germany's biggest left-wing opposition party has strongly criticized the mission and has accused the government of deceiving its people by portraying it as a security and reconstruction operation while glossing over the fighting.

At least 25 German soldiers have died in Afghanistan, despite being based in the relatively peaceful north of the country.

Germany's constitution imposes strict limits on the country's military involvement abroad, and there is resistance to the mission even within its armed forces.

One such critic, Jurgen Rose, a lieutenant colonel in the German Air Force whose anti-ISAF campaign has landed him in plenty of legal trouble, says NATO's real objective in Afghanistan isn't to fight the Taliban, but to ensure American hegemony in the region.

" Afghanistan has become a neo-colonialist war," he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

But Rose would not go as far as to argue that his country should pull out of Afghanistan. Instead, he says, Germany should pursue its own strategy of ensuring peace through dialogue and cooperation with the Afghan people.

This is an argument that resonates among many people in Europe. Italy, for instance, also has a strong pacifist movement. And left- wing lawmakers nearly brought down Romano Prodi's government over its role in Afghanistan a year ago (Prodi finally stepped down last month because of insurmountable differences within his broad centre-left coalition).

In fact, it is precisely people like Rose that the German government is trying to appease with its latest move.

Observers attending the Security Conference suggested that by sending more troops, the German government was hoping to achieve more clout within NATO.

"We need greater cooperation with our partners. We need more dialogue and consultation, the basis for joint decisions. Above all, we need more unity in our intentions," German Defence Minister Franz- Josef Jung told the conference.

Jung was responding to criticisms voiced by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who earlier this week warned that NATO risked becoming a "two-tier" alliance because member states like Germany were not willing to send their soldiers to fight in Afghanistan's Taliban- infested south.

The United States, which provides more than half of ISAF's total forces of 43,000, has conducted most of the fighting there, along with the Netherlands, Britain and Canada.

Recently, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned that his country might end its military mission unless other NATO countries sent more troops to the south.

By calling for more dialogue and consultation in Munich, Jung was effectively urging his NATO allies to show respect for the German concept of international peace-keeping.

"It is important for NATO to be seen as a community which implements its security strategy as a whole," Jung said.

His government colleague Steinmeier, a Social-Democrat, backed him moments later by saying NATO should be building more schools and workshops in Afghanistan.

With their comments, the German ministers were highlighting their impatience with the Anglo-American approach to ISAF, which many in Europe believe is too focused on the purely military aspects of the mission.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, also present at the conference, said he was willing to listen.

"The lesson we learned in Afghanistan is that security doesn't last without reconstruction, good governance and reconciliation," he said.

De Hoop Scheffer knows that the different political sensibilities of the 26-member alliance need to be balanced.

And if Germany succeeds in gaining a stronger voice by contributing more troops, ISAF might have to readdress its strategy.

Whether the United States, Britain and Canada - which have suffered combined losses of nearly 650 soldiers - will be won over remains to be seen.

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